Now that the 2007 season has come to a close, it’s time to parse the 2007 rookie class and separate the wheat from the chaff, the best from the rest, the cookies…from the crumbs.
Cookie: Dustin Pedroia
My picking “Pedro” (as the guys on the team have christened him) should come as no surprise to regular readers of UmpBump. Quite simply, no other rookie has grown up as fast or as completely as the little man with the big swing. After a brutal first month in the majors, Dustin was hitting .182 at the end of April, and the ravening hordes of Red Sox Nation were calling for blood. Worse, veteran players on other teams were audibly laughing at him and his body-wringing swing during his at-bats.
They’re not laughing now. Pedroia finished the season with the best batting average of AL rookies (.317), the best OPS (.822), and the most runs scored (88). Though he only has seven stolen bases, he has the best stolen base percentage (0.88). And he’s one of the hardest batters to strike out in the league (just 42 K’s in 581 plate appearances, for a beautiful walk-to-strikeout rate of 1.12) . Such a rate of contact without a lot of power (just 8 homers on the season) must mean he grounds into a lot of double plays, right? Actually, no—Pedroia has done that just 8 times this season.
Defensively, Pedroia has been solid but not spectacular. This is an area where I believe his diminutive stature has hurt him—many a time I’ve seen him dive after a gapper, his 5’7″ frame fully extended, only to watch the ball sail just an inch past his wee arm. Nevertheless, he plays an acrobatic second base, epitomized by the amazing grab he made to save fellow rookie Clay Buchholz’s no-hitter.
In addition to his maturity on the field, Pedroia has also shown maturity off the field: after a brief hubbub early in the season when Alex Rodriguez through a multimilliondollar elbow at him to try and break up a double play, Pedroia’s mild comment (calling it “cheap” but also “no big deal”) got all kinds of airtime. And young Dustin promptly learned a valuable lesson: zip it.
For being the rookie to play the most like a big-leaguer, Dustin Pedroia deserves to be the American League Rookie of the Year.
Crumbs: Delmon Young, Reggie Willits, Josh Fields, Brian Bannister, Jeremy Guthrie.
Not that I think these guys are crummy players—just that it’s the crumbs they’ll get stuck with when Pedroia gets the cookie. Delmon Young has gotten a lot of attention as a potential ROY for knocking in 93 RBI, no mean feat (it doesn’t hurt that his average, which was .288 overall, jumps to .347 with runners in scoring position). However, the Tampa Bay left fielder has a hideous VORP (just 5.7, compared with Pedroia’s 36.0). And while Young gets props for playing in all 162 games this year, he instantly loses those props for failing to run out a grounder and being benched by his manager with just one game left to play. I know it’s hard to run out every ball when it’s the end of September and you play for the Devil Rays, but this is just the kind of immature incident that has gotten Young in trouble in the past. It’s not big-league. It’s bush-league.
Willits, left-fielder for the Angels, gets an honorable mention for having the best eye of the rookie class. Though it’s hard to strike out Pedroia, it’s hard not to walk Willits: a .391 OBP, 69 walks, and 4.44 pitches per plate appearance. Once he gets on, pitchers had better keep their eye on him, too—he had 27 steals this year. But he has absolutely no power—just 20 doubles and no homers.
Josh Fields should be an interesting guy to watch develop. The White Sox third baseman only played 100 games this year, which hurts his ROY status in my mind, but he’s an interesting combination of above-average defensive ability and power hitting. His average was just .244, yet he hit 23 homers and has a .480 slugging percentage. If he can learn some plate discipline (he had 125 strikeouts in those 100 games—yikes) he could be a real threat for Chicago.
As for the pitchers, Guthrie and Bannister, it’s hard to say what these kids would have done if they’d been on better teams (as opposed to the Orioles and the Royals, respectively). Bannister may not strike out a lot of people, but he doesn’t walk a lot of folks either. He was consistently good all year long, but especially effective June through August. Guthrie was a bit more uneven, but finished the year with comparable numbers. I don’t think either of them is the rookie of the year, but I’d sure like to have them on my team.
Cookie: Troy Tulowitzki
The Rockies shortstop has really turned it on in the past week to help his team get to the playoffs, with a grand slam here, a triple there, a couple of doubles over there. But that’s nothing new for the newbie—he’s been playing well all season long. His .287 average, 24 homers, and 98 RBI make him a great offensive shortstop. Lucky for the Rockies, then, that they sacrifice absolutely nothing on defense: Tulowitzki has been the best defensive shortstop in the league this year.
Crumbs: Ryan Braun, Kevin Kouzmanoff, Hunter Pence, James Loney.
Ryan Braun, third baseman for the Brewers, has a drool-worthy amount of offense: .324 average, .634 slugging percentage, 1.004 OPS, and 34 homers. Those homers look even more amazing when you realize he played in just 113 games. Unfortunately, as I mentioned above, I feel bad about giving awards to guys who don’t play on an everyday basis, or close to it. I also feel bad handing out cookies to guys who are the worst at their positions, defensively. And Braun has been, hands down, the worst third baseman in the league this year. Sorry, Ryan. Even your husky VORP (57.2) isn’t enough to save you.
What about Hunter Pence, you ask? The Astros centerfielder put up some very good numbers—.322 average, 69 RBI, 17 homers, and nine triples in 108 games. He uses his speed well in the outfield, where he’s above average defensively, but I feel obliged to note that he has a harmful .69 stolen base percentage. Nevertheless, If he’d played in more games, he could have given Tulowitzki some real competition.
I also considered Kevin Kouzmanoff, the third baseman for the Padres. Alas, poor Kevin! He loses another heartbreaker to his Colorado foe. His offensive numbers are juuust a touch softer than Troy’s across the board. Plus, he’s right down there with Braun as a craptastic corner glove. Nevertheless, he was the only rookie besides Tulowitzki and Diamondbacks CF Chris “.237″ Young to play in more than 140 games, and that, plus his decent numbers, is enough to earn our consideration.
Finally, I feel obliged to give an honorary crumb to James Loney, the young Dodgers first baseman. Like Pence, if he’d played in more games (as opposed to just 96) he could have given Tulowitzki a run for his money. In three important categories, he achieved some impressive numbers: his .331 average, .381 OBP, and 114 runs scored. As two nice peripherals, his walk-to-strikeout rate was the best in the class at 0.58, as was his average with runners in scoring position—a whopping .419. And not that first base is a defensively demanding position, but it’s worth noting that he can hold his own there.
Loney, Pence, and Braun (move him to first base, somebody!) might not be your NL ROYs, but any of them could very well end up being your NL MVPs a few years hence.